Courtesy Reuters

The Confirmation Clog


On August 1, Peter Burleigh, one of America's most seasoned and effective diplomats, quietly tendered his resignation after 33 years in the U.S. Foreign Service. Burleigh's nomination to be ambassador to the Philippines had been held up for nine months in the Senate. With no prospects for movement through the remainder of the year, Burleigh decided to move on with his life. He had been in limbo not because of questions about his qualifications or actions, but because Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), upset about the State Department's treatment of an American whistle blower at the United Nations, had exercised his senatorial prerogative to hold up Burleigh's nomination and two other ambassadorial appointments indefinitely.

Burleigh was no stranger to delays in appointments. Previously, he had served as the acting U.S. representative to the United Nations for more than a year while the administration's nominee for the post, Richard Holbrooke, was himself the victim of long executive and legislative branch delays. The Burleigh and Holbrooke examples stand out because of the importance and visibility of the positions, but sadly they are not unusual. More and more top executive jobs are sitting unfilled or filled on an acting basis for months or even years. Without significant changes in laws, rules, and norms, the incoming president of the United States faces the prospect of waiting for nearly a year after his inauguration on January 20 for his team to be set in place -- not to mention the headaches any subsequent vacancies will cause.

Forty years ago, when John F. Kennedy became president, cabinet and subcabinet officers were nominated and confirmed expeditiously. On average, the 196 top-level executive positions requiring Senate confirmation were filled less than two and a half months after the presidential inauguration.

Thirty-two years later, when Bill Clinton assumed the presidency, it was a different story. The 786 top-level Clinton nominees requiring Senate confirmation took an average of almost nine months after inauguration to assume their posts -- meaning they missed more

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